For me growing up in East Manchester in the early 1970s, Education meant only school. School meant distractions from the things that we really wanted to do; and our response to those distractions meant only one thing. We would invest where we could, in how to avoid school, school work, school teachers and anything associated with it.
Education was not initially valued by me or my peers. We did not think that we could be educated outside of the classroom. ‘Informal education’ was not a term that we would have recognised let alone understood.
It was commonly regarded, almost to the point of cliché, that there were two ways out of the narrow environment and straightened circumstances in which we grew up; sport, and music.. Play the game or form a band.. This was not true. There were two other routes. One up .. one down.. education, or operating on ‘the wrong side of the law’..
Education was definitely tied to the ‘up’ escalator.. up and out.. Crime.. was the down side., down and out.. It didn’t always seem this way from where we were sitting. It took an inspirational teacher to turn us around. One teacher managed to find the key to unlock in some of us a passion for learning that had previously lain dormant, or in some cases had been deliberately buried.
I recently hooked up with some of the guys I had been at school with. Four of my class mates had made it to Higher Education; many others joined the local council on apprenticeships, becoming skilled tradesmen. We are all a bit heavier, a little greyer around the temples, and are all carrying a few more pounds around the middle. Five of our number took the down escalator, spending time either on remand or serving sentences ranging from petty theft to drug dealing and armed robbery.
One class mate, I will call him Stefan, a successful boxer, found his sporting career in the doldrums and after picking up an injury that left him unable to fight, fell in with the ‘wrong crowd’ as he sought to maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. As the driver for a four man team that withdrew money from a local post office using firearms, Stefan was arrested and sentenced for his first offence.
Imprisoned for five years, he was he explained, “mentally and physically strong enough to look after myself in prison”. What he wasn’t prepared for was the boredom and sense of isolation that he experienced. The first six months were an enormous challenge, but he was turned around by something that he had run a mile from in his school days - education. Stefan learnt bricklaying and became the skilled tradesman his father had always wanted him to be. He also found that he had an interest in classroom based education, for which he claimed to have had neither the patience nor the aptitude in school. He had an opportunity to study English and to take and pass three GCSEs whilst on sentence.
What had made the difference for Stefan was having someone believe in him, and take the time to invest in his potential. Stefan explained to me that his story was not the norm, the other three guys arrested and imprisoned with him, continued to offend and have as far as he is aware, spent the last twenty years in and out of custody. All four continue to live in East Manchester, but Stefan has imbued his own teenage sons with a sense of value in education. He is not proud of his time inside, but neither is he ashamed. He sees it as a turning point, the point at which someone finally believed in him enough to invest the time and patience to help him turn his life around. This is the point at which Stefan came to value education. He has now tasted sport, prison and education. Now he says, he might form a band.